The hardest kind of editing is self-editing. You will always find things you want to tweak, things you want to change, maybe even some sneaky little errors that your eye skipped over the first ten times through. The hardest part of self-editing is knowing when to stop editing. Know the difference between things that are actually incorrect and things that you think could have been better. I can’t tell you how many times I go in and tweak even these little blog posts, after I put them up! At some point, even those of us who nitpick for a living must accept that what we’ve written is the best that it can be, and we need to step away.
Conventional wisdom tells us to “measure twice, cut once”. Common sense, right? A cut can’t be undone, but an incorrect measurement can be corrected. It sounds great on paper. Having done my own share of home improvement, I’ve never had it work out that way in practice. Editing is no different. No matter how many times you measure—or how many times you read the same words—you will find something else to change. It will be so glaring that you will wonder how you could have possibly missed it before.
Am I saying that all editors are incompetent and will let errors through, and that you have to resign yourself to that? No. Not at all. I’m saying that you shouldn’t stop looking for errors just because you have an editor on the case, and I’m saying that you can expect a bit of second-guessing from yourself as you do your final read-throughs. And I’m saying that you need to be aware of the difference in scale between something that’s really wrong, and something you wish you’d phrased another way.
Conventional wisdom tells us that after you’ve cut, it’s too late to go back and fix things to meet the measurements. That’s not true, either. You can attach a little extra length onto that cut board, or patch a hole. Likewise, you can catch errors before they go to print. Or even after. Just make sure it’s that first kind of error. The truly incorrect kind. Cut twice if the boards don’t fit together at all. Not if you second-guess yourself and wish you’d gone with a completely different style of trim. That falls under “accepting and living with your choices, and stepping away”, per above.
Now, you can’t erase an error entirely. But you can re-record, re-release, re-send, or even put out a second edition. The sixth Harry Potter book was originally released with three or four typos in it. Even though the print run numbered in the millions of copies, Scholastic was still able to jump on top of it, push through a corrected second edition, and move forward. Are the uncorrected books still out there? Yes, undoubtedly, they are. Yours, undoubtedly, will also be. Going forward, however, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that every new sale, new page view, or new download is of the corrected, best version you can provide.
It sounds so easy, right? Well, how do you do it?
Really. That’s all there is to it.
When you get a draft back from your editor, don’t just jump from one change to the next. Really read it through again. Read every word. Try changing the font, or reading it out loud. The same words look different when their layout changes, making it easier to catch things you hadn’t caught before. Likewise, reading out loud forces you to slow down and focus on every word, keeping your brain from skipping over the parts it thinks it already knows.
When you get galleys back from your publisher, whether they’re the paper layout of a book or just a .pdf file, read them. Read every word. Read it like you’ve never seen it before. This is your last chance to catch little glitches before your work goes to print. Use this opportunity to your advantage. Always share your galleys with your editor, too. Your editor will be very unhappy if a layout or format mistake goes to print that she wasn’t given the opportunity to catch.
When the finished product is released. Read it. Read every word. Listen to your own podcast. Be your own customer and share in your readers’ and listeners’ experience. Enjoy it and take pride in it.
If you think you should have put your heroine in blue instead of green, consider it a lesson learned. But if you find that there’s been a processing error and two pages in the middle of your story, or two minutes in the middle of a broadcast, came out blank, you need to know about it. You can only fix problems that you know exist. It’s every writer’s nightmare, but it’s not the end of the world. That’s what you have a next edition (or a revised downloadable) for. Even if you’re writing for a periodical (which can’t be changed after it goes to press) an errata can still be published in the next issue, and you can have the corrected edition available for reprints.
Measure as many times as you can, but be comforted in the knowledge that if you need to, you can still cut twice.